Reading Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson

Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture
Richard Wilkinson
Thames & Hudson, 1994
224 pages

Reviewed by Devo

I have to say that I’m very impressed with this book. This is the first book that I’ve read in a long time that presented any new material for me to learn. And after reading this book, I feel like I could potentially navigate ancient Egyptian reliefs with a bit more knowledge and ability.

This book is set up pretty simply. On any given spread, you will see a hieroglyph and its name. On the right side, you’ll see the glyph explained in detail about what it represents, its symbolism, uses, etc. On the left hand side, you’ll see various pictures and examples of the glyph being used. It makes a nice reference, esp. when you’re looking at some relief, and want to know more about it. In the back, there is a basic index of hieroglyphs, in case you want the full list.

The book presents a wide variety of glyphs which have been categorized into easily navigable chapters and sections for easy reference. The writing is straight forward and very easy to read. The writing style works well for beginner and seasoned reader alike.

The only down side to this book is that I wish he covered more glyphs. I flip through the back, and look at other symbols, and I want to know what they mean, what they represent. I wish there was a full reference of every major ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, so that I could study it more. Other than that, I have no complaints with this book. I learned a lot of mythology I didn’t know before, I learned more specifics about the gods that I was unaware of, and I got to learn more about the basic symbols you see all the time, but usually aren’t explained well.
All in all, I would definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in learning more about symbolism and hieroglyphs in Ancient Egyptian art.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Little Book of Odes and Invocations by Auntie Matter

The Little Book of Odes & Invocations
Auntie Matter (Sondra Slade)
Self-published, 2010
10 pages

One of the things I love about reviewing self-published works is that while a good number of them are in sore need of editing, there are those wonderfully independent gems that are both well-written, and defy conventional publishing rules. A ten-page book of nothing but sacred poetry may not sound all that exciting or original, but this particular little chapbook packs a lot of quality into a small space.

The booklet begins with a Winter solstice invocation, with meditative lines on “The Slumbering Seed”, “Endless Night” and “Formless Energy”. The air of anticipation and turning toward the sunnier part of the year again is apparent. The last invocation is, appropriately, the Summer Solstice, a joyous celebration of life and light. In between these, Slade writes of the Moon, a Wiccan-flavored raising of energy, and one of the few things written about 2012 that I didn’t hate, among other themes.

Her writing style is incredibly descriptive even in a few words, and I can definitely see where these invocations would have a very powerful effect in a ritual. Her words have a good flow and rhythm to them, which should help bring on altered states of consciousness rather nicely. They’re interesting to look at, too. She patterns some of her free verse poetry with indentations to punctuate specific words or ideas following a general idea earlier in the stanza. This adds a wave-like quality to the works.

Pretty much my only complaint is that this is a very slim volume for the $10 price. I recognize that because it is printed on a home printer, to include some wonderfully detailed full-color illustrations, that printing up these booklets probably requires a lot of ink cartridges. However, seven poems and two pieces of artwork on ten pages is going to be a tough sell for a lot of people, even with the excellent quality of both writing and art. I might suggest that the layout be redone, and maybe some content added, to accommodate the minimum page count for a book at Lulu.com.

Still, it’s a wonderful compilation, and if you are looking for some really effective creative invocations for use in either solo or group rituals, this is a great resource to have on hand. It’s obvious that the author is tapped into the energies she writes about, and this comes through in every piece in this book.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown

Coming Back to Life: Practice to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World
Joanna Lacy and Molly Young Brown
New Society Publishers, 1998
224 pages

I first encountered Joanna Macy’s work when I began to learn about ecopsychology. While she is not expressly a psychologist, her work in systems theory and deep ecology in particular tie in very nicely with ecopsychology, and her writings are considered foundational to that field. Her work with exploring and working through grief, as well as broader ritual practices, give her a solid place in the study and practice of modern rites of passage.

Pagans ought to be very aware of her works, especially those who enact group rituals. This text, cowritten by Molly Young Brown, herself a practitioner of ecopsychology among other disciplines, is a great starting point for those unfamiliar. It is a book for leading and guiding group rituals, without specific spiritual or religious trappings, that are designed to facilitate connection with the self, with others, and with the world around us. The context for the rituals is explained in great detail, from the feelings of grief, loss, and other emotions that often go unspoken in polite society, to the importance of caring for the emotions of ritual participants and how to help them through difficult catharses. Much of this may already be known to seasoned priest/esses and other pagan clergy, but there are some useful guidelines nonetheless.

The rituals themselves are fantastic. There’s the classic Council of All Beings, in which participants speak as various nonhuman entities. There are also exercises like Tape Recording to the Future and Letters From the Future which help us to place ourselves in context of the enormity of Time As a Whole, but also bring us into immediate awareness of the effects our actions have on those who will come after us. Narrative, art, and other forms of expression feature prominently, and there is much to utilize in working with pagan groups.

I highly recommend this as a guide to ritual practices, not only for eco-centric or politically minded pagans, but those wishing for inspiration for more emotionally involved rituals. There’s plenty to think about and even more to do, and I am nothing less than amazed by the creativity and effectiveness of what is presented here.

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis

A Guide to Zuni Fetishes and Carvings
Kent McManis
Treasure Chest Books, 1995
48 pages

Note: There are expanded editions of this text available; this is an older edition. Please see the link at the end of the review. Please follow the link at the end of the review if interested.

Often imitated, but hard to reproduce at authentic quality, the small stone animal fetishes created by the Zuni and other southwestern American Indian cultures are well-known artifacts. However, most people don’t know much beyond the fact that they’re made by indigenous peoples, and perhaps that they’re worth money to collectors. This little book serves as an introduction to their origins and the current state of the art form.

A very basic explanation of the spiritual cosmology that informs the creation of Zuni fetishes is offered at the beginning. This creates a nice context for what follows, brief but interesting explanations of some of the more common animals found in fetish art, and what their spiritual and cultural significance is. Unlike Zuni Fetishes by Bennett, this is not a how-to text, and sticks pretty closely to the source material as opposed to extrapolating rituals that may or may not be authentic.

The book is largely aimed at collectors, and the absolutely stunning full color photographs that grace much of the book make it worth the cost on their own. McManis showcases the works of some of the better-known fetish artist families, as well as giving some information on the current living artists, and a bit on how to tell a fake apart from the real deal. The depth of the talent and creativity displayed in the examples given is amazing, and the book made me appreciate this art form even more than before.

Whether you’re a potential collector, a spiritual or artistic researcher, or simply interested in knowing a bit more about a neat niche topic, this is a good starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an easy to digest intro.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Amulet Manual – Kim Farnell

The Amulet Manual: A Guide to Understanding and Making Your Own Amulets
Kim Farnell
O Books, 2007
134 pages

Note: This review was originally written for and published in newWitch magazine.

Most Pagans, once they have some experience, prefer to create their own rituals, spells and magical objects. The Amulet Manual is a basic guidebook to making amulets, magical objects aimed at drawing a particular sort of energy, influence or entity.

The first part of the book deals with the history of amulets in various cultures, and gives brief overviews of common amulets found everywhere from South America to ancient Egypt. The author also explains the difference between an amulet and a talisman, and provides a basic ritual for creating and charging your newly created amulet.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to magical correspondences that may come in handy when making amulets. The usual suspects—herbs, stones and planetary energies—are covered, though Farnell also covers sigilization (classic and Chaos magic). Her research is good and there’s a good bit of information in these pages. If you already have several books of magical correspondences, though, you may find much of the material redundant. In fact, the best audience for this book is the Pagan who has the basics down and wants to test the waters of amulet magic, but can’t afford a lot of books. It’s compact, though it shouldn’t be taken as the do-all and end-all of correspondences.

I do wish she would have cited her sources, or at least provided a bibliography. There’s a lot of information quite clearly taken from third party sources, and she doesn’t give credit for any of it. Additionally, it would be nice to know where she got her historical information.

If you’re still a relative beginner and want a good introductory text to the theory of amulet creation, this is a good start. There’s no practical how-to information on the actual creation of amulets, but this gives you basic building blocks.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One

Thorn Magazine, Volume One, Issue One
Various authors, editors, artists and other contributors
December 2008
72 pages

Before I start this review, a disclaimer: I have been taken on as a reviewer by this publication, and have a book review in this issue. Please note the potential for bias, though I will do my best to maintain my neutrality.

The quality of neopagan dead tree magazines vary greatly. On the one hand, you have a small grouping of professional magazine publishers who have consistently managed to put forth decent material on a schedule. On the other, you have the magazines that never made it past the first issue, DIY zines of varying stripes and qualities, and some miscellaneous forgettable examples throughout the years. Running a magazine is tough, because it means multiple times a year you’re collecting, editing, laying out, printing and distributing material from all sorts of writers and other creatives. Burnout is common in the (relatively) small press magazine world.

I have a lot of hope for Thorn magazine, however. Started by “Chip O’Brien, the hideous result of a mad experiment by the Rutgers English department”, this is a pagan mag that goes well beyond spells and shiny objects. For this first issue, Chip and Co. managed to compile a delightful variety of articles, commentaries, artwork and other items. There’s too much to discuss every single item in detail, but here are a few of my favorites:

–The Wild Hunt (magazine column version) by Jason Pitzl-Waters: Despite the prevalence of paganism on the internet, not all pagans love spending time online as much as I do. So I thought that the addition of a summary of some of the highlights from the Wild Hunt was a great way to help the less cyber-focused still get access to a wide variety of pagan-relevant news bits. I thought it translated well, especially as I am a regular reader of the blog itself.

–Without a Watchmaker: An Atheist’s Search for the Gods by Robert Koskulics: Having recently taken up with someone who identifies both with the terms “pagan” and “atheist”, and having seen a recent spate of discussion of atheism in paganism via various popular pagan blogs, I leaped on this article almost immediately. It’s a sensitive treatment of one atheist’s experiences joining a coven for their Samhain celebration; while the author was frank about the points where he maybe wasn’t so moved by the ritual as the pagans were, I did enjoy his conclusion: “Gratitude for my life and my place in the world is almost as good as knowing why I should be grateful in the first place” (p.11). It’s a beautiful piece, and one of my favorites from the entire issue.

–The Extraordinary Healing And/Or Totally Fraudulent Powers of Orgone by Jeff Mach: I’m a bit familair with Reich from an occult perspective, but also from the perspective of a psych grad student. I haven’t yet read Reich’s works directly, though I have them in my possession, but I did have a class where a Reichian therapist sat in as a substitute for the usual professor and talked a bit about his practice. Mach’s article, on the other hand, tends to favor the more occultish interpretations of orgone energy, Reich’s theoretical energetic matrix that permeates, well, everything. While he does touch on Reich’s work in psychotherapy, much of the article deals with the more esoteric applications of orgone–and the conspiracy theories surrounding Reich’s persecution and mysterious death in prison. Reich and his work are not a simple topic to tackle, and Mach does quite the admirable job of presenting his case.

The Cauldron of Poesy (translation) by Erynn Rowan Laurie: This is a circa 7th century poem written by an Irish fili, or poet-mystic; Laurie has done a lovely job of translating it. Translation is always a bit of a challenge, especially with poetry, because often the original words are specifically chosen for their rhythm and sound, and trying to make a translation that sounds just as nice isn’t easy. Laurie preserves the meaning while creating something that is pleasurable to read and recite.

–Thralldom in Theodish Belief by Joseph Bloch: I’ll admit that I’m no expert on heathenry, and I know less about Theodism than other sorts, such as Asatru. However, I was utterly fascinated by this approach to a neotribal membership process that draws on the concept of a newcomer to a culture being a thrall, a “nobody”, who then must earn their place in society, through working within some very specific parameters. It’s a wonderfully thorough way to weed out potentially problematic applicants and to show who’s really dedicated to being a part of the tribe. I admit that I couldn’t help but be reminded, to an extent, of the spirit of the Master/slave relationship in BDSM–while the Theodish thralldom is in no way sexual, the general concept of a willing sacrifice of one’s power for a particular goal/purpose seems to be a commonality.

There were plenty of other things that I loved, to include a beautiful critique of Gimbutas’ faulty research, some absolutely amazing artwork, and spotlights on pagan-related pop culture. Admittedly, there were also a few pieces I thought weren’t as strong. Tchipakkan’s “Hanging with the Gods”, a discussion of her and her family’s experiences with “real live encounters” with the spirits and deities made me want to reach for my Occam’s Razor. Starwolf’s “Wyrd Science: A Lab Report” was supposed to include “20% craft skill, 60% research and 20%….insane inspiration!”, all I really saw was a couple of instructables on how to make a copper wand and a “Psychic Shield Generator”, with no real scientific method, research, or other content. And Jack Lux’s “An Evening With Uncle Chuckie” discussed the author’s inspiration to thumb his nose at “white lighters” and their pesky ethics after a presentation by the infamous Charles Cosimano; it came across more as a rebellious OMGDARKMAGICIAN, and my end reaction was “Gee, so you cast a curse and it might have worked. That’s nice”.

Still, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this magazine, and even the parts I wasn’t so impressed by may absolutely tickle someone else. Also, I’d like to mention (and here I’ll definitely admit my bias as a writer!), Thorn is one of very, very few paying venues for pagan magazine contributors. Granted, as a startup, they’re limited in what they can afford to pay. However, considering most of the time writers have to settle for a contributor’s copy of the magazine they get published in, or maybe a free subscription, this is a welcome change. I strongly suggest that if you like what you see from this magazine, that you treat yourself to a subscription–and help keep this excellent publication afloat.

Thorn is by far the most professional startup I’ve seen, and if the first issue is an indication, this will definitely be a strong voice in pagan publishing for years to come.

Five pawprints out of five

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Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles

Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes
Christopher Knowles
Weiser Books, 2007
234 pages

I had a number of reasons for being really excited about reading this book. One, I am a geek. While I’m a bit of a latecomer to comic book geekery in specific, I’ve done a good bit of catching up. Two, I’m also a sometimes-practitioner of pop culture magic (a concept that my husband, who wrote a practical guide on it, introduced me to). There’s really not much about the intersection of occultism and pop culture out there other than some examinations of trends in movies and books in general, so this text pinged a lot of my geek buttons.

The idea itself is excellent: examine the trappings of the occult in various comic books, both from major publishers like DC and Marvel, and smaller indy publishers, as well as the relationship comic book fans have to the characters and stories as modern-day mythology. There’s plenty of material available, some of it subtle, a good deal of it (especially recently) more open.

Knowles most definitely knows his comic books, at least more mainstream ones. He draws on a wide variety of titles, and brings in a lot of little details about their origins (occult and otherwise). He also explains the contexts in which different characters were created and/or revived, particularly social and political issues, which adds significantly to the depth of his research. His research on the various flavors of occultism in and of itself is pretty solid as well; I’m not sure how active he himself is, but if he’s coming more from the perspective of an observer, he’s done pretty well.

His enthusiasm for the topic comes through in his writing, and I’d love to hear him speak about comic books sometime. He makes nonfiction into a story, as his writing has a narrative quality to it. I would love to read just a straight comic book history from this author. This book could have used extra proofreading, as there are some typos, but that’s not on the author.

Unfortunately, the execution of the material wasn’t nearly as good as I had hoped. First, the book feels more like it’s written for the comic book end of the audience rather than the occultists, despite having been picked up by one of the premiere occult and pagan publishers in the industry, and seems to have been promoted primarily within the comic book scene. It’s a book entirely composed of theory and research, rather than any practical material. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, other than that the bias may be a bit disappointing to those expecting more occult-specific material.

The organization of the text leaves much to be desired. The chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next. Additionally, and this is a big complaint on my part, Knowles spends a lot of ink interjecting 101 material both about the history of comics and occultism. Given that there are numerous texts that cover these concepts more than adequately, the space could have been better put to use. The same goes for the bulk of the material on the actual occult aspects of comic book characters. It reads mostly like a laundry list or a high school report; there’s not a lot of analysis of the information amid the statement of the facts. And while Knowles does cite some sources here and there, he engages in a LOT of speculation about the supposed occult influences on various characters. Granted, we know a lot more about the activities of, say, Grant Morrison than we do about Jack Kirby, thanks to interviews and so forth. However, speculation should be presented as just that, not as undisputed fact.

I really think that the laundry list should have been shortened significantly, and a lot of the not-directly-relevant 101 material cut out. What would have been more valuable would have been extending the more solid information that we do have–for example, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and their occult-influenced works could easily have been given a chapter apiece. While I don’t think the contributions of Kirby and others should have been ignored, I think Knowles missed the chance to go more in-depth with some of these creators and their creations.

The same goes for the “reverent” approach towards heroes that Knowles attributes to many comic book fans. He hints at it here and there, but never really examines it in detail. Given that there are people who work with comic book characters in magical practice, and folks who see them as modern manifestations of ancient archetypes in spirituality, he could have done some research on this sort of modern practice. Of course, he also refers to Joseph Campbell’s work as “obscure” (p. 193), so he may be more mainstream than I had initially assumed (again, reference the heavier influence towards the comic book audience in the book overall).

Finally, one quibble in gender-related terminology I’d like to bring up. On p.167, Knowles states, “In Miller’s stories, Elektra is essentially devoid of a recognizably feminine personality, and became quite square-jawed and muscular in his later renderings. One can even argue that Elektra is essentially a transvestite or transsexual character, and that the trauma of her father’s death effectively removes her femininity” (italics mine). No, no, and furthermore, no. A masculine woman is NOT automatically transgender. Given, however, that the comic book aesthetic relies quite a bit on gender dualities, I’m not surprised to see this misunderstanding of nondualistic gender and sexual identity.

Given that this is the first (to my knowledge) book to explore the occult history of comic books, it’s not surprising that there are some flaws–this is common with the first of any sort of book. Despite my complaints, it’s a good effort, all told, and still worth reading (albeit with some caveats). I’m a pretty picky reviewer, and as mentioned, geeky enough to have nitpicks that other readers may overlook. However, I’m going to give it….

Three pawprints out of five.

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Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

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The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

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Buckskin and Buffalo – Colin F. Taylor

Buckskin and Buffalo: The Artistry of the Plains Indians
Colin F. Taylor
Salamander Books
128 pages

This is an amazingly wonderful book! It features excellent color photos, both full-size and detail, of dozens of circa 19th century Plains Indian works of leather, including shirts, leggings, robes, and other practical artwork. Beadwork, quillwork adn paint adorn these works of buffalo deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep hides, and the author selected some astoundingly lovely pieces.

The text that accompanies each one goes into the source, the components, and the cultural significance of both the objects themselves and their adornment, as well as interesting bits of information about certain details, such as a particular type of bead or feather used, or the importance of the piece in its culture. The tribal origins of each entry are also discussed, including cases where the author disagreed with the museum or collection that held the piece, and details explaining why (ie, this detail resembles this tribe instead of that tribe).

Overall, it is a really nicely done work. However, one question is left unasked. We’ve seen the pretty artwork and have learned its immense importance. Now can we please return these to the people to whom they are so very important?

Five pawprints out of five.

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